Saudis Bomb Yemen Palace as War Takes New Turn With Saleh Death

Updated on
  • Ex-president had split with Houthi rebels, moved to Saudi camp
  • His killing may escalate conflict, deepen humanitarian crisis
Ali Abdullah Saleh

Photographer: Mohammed Huwais/AFP via Getty Images

Saudi Arabian warplanes bombed the presidential palace in Yemen’s capital, stepping up attacks on Houthi rebels after they killed the country’s former president just when he appeared set to switch sides and offer the Saudis a way out of the conflict.

The palace in Sana’a, currently used by the Houthi leadership, was pounded by at least seven airstrikes late Monday, local media reported. It’s the first time the building has been targeted in almost three years of war. Earlier, the rebels said they had killed ex-President Ali Abdullah Saleh, whose alliance with the Houthis had helped them control large parts of the country, including the capital, since 2014. The pact broke down in recent days, triggering clashes between the one-time partners.

Saleh governed Yemen for three decades before he was ousted during the Arab Spring in 2012 amid mass protests against his rule. He subsequently joined forces with the Houthis to fight against the new Saudi-installed government. His killing may alter the course of the war in Yemen, often seen as part of a broader regional struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which backs the rebels.

The Saudis had been working toward a deal with Saleh that represented “their best chance to take the Houthis out of commission,” said Peter Salisbury, a senior research fellow at Chatham House in London.

His killing means that “the gloves are off” for the Saudi-led coalition, Salisbury said. “They will do everything possible now to destroy the Houthis.”

Devastating Airstrikes

For the past two years, Saudi Arabia’s southern neighbor has been divided into two camps, with the government of the Saudi-backed president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, based in Aden and the Houthis in control of the capital, Sana’a, and most of the north. A Saudi-led bombing campaign to restore Hadi’s authority over the whole country has devastated swaths of Yemen.

The war has left at least 14,000 killed or wounded, 1 million suffering from cholera, and 3 million internally displaced. German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel called Yemen the world’s “worst humanitarian crisis.”

In a televised speech on Monday, Hadi pledged to deploy his armed forces in any uprising against the Houthis in Sana’a, and appealed for the backing of Saleh’s supporters.

Until recently, Saleh had partnered with the Houthis, though the alliance was always tenuous because the former president had battled the rebels during his time in power. Many saw it as a marriage of convenience motivated by his wish to regain the presidency.

Secret Talks

Houthi rebels this year accused Saleh of holding secret talks with the United Arab Emirates, a close Saudi ally and member of its coalition in Yemen. On Saturday, Saleh called on Yemenis to “defend their republic” against the Houthis, and urged the Saudis to stop their airstrikes and lift all blockades. The Saudi coalition later backed his stance.

It would be a “terrible mistake” for the Saudis to escalate the conflict after Saleh’s death, said Joost Hiltermann, program director for the Middle East and North Africa at International Crisis Group.

“The war has been incredibly costly for them, so they desperately need an exit strategy -- but they don’t have one,” he said. “The only sensible way is to talk to the Houthis again.” To do that, the Saudis will have to “overcome their hesitation and this notion that the Houthis are so strongly supported by Iran that by talking to them they are encouraging Iran’s rise,” he said.

Some analysts said Saleh’s death, and the collapse of his alliance with the Houthis, would weaken the rebels by reducing manpower and their ability to hold territory.

“The real question is how the Houthis intend to move forward,” said Miriam Eps, regional security analyst at risk-management consultancy Le Beck International. “Continued conflict is certainly an option, and they could turn to Iran for increased support, but they may also realize that the dissolution of their alliance means they have to negotiate.”

— With assistance by Ahmed Feteha, Dana Khraiche, Lin Noueihed, and Vivian Nereim

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